Are secondary school PTRs really improving in England?

Earlier today the government, through the DfE, issued the latest UK Education and Training Statistics for 2016/17 in Statistical Release SR64/2017 and its associated tables. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/education-and-training-statistics-for-the-uk-2017

Now, in recent weeks we have often been hearing how secondary schools in England are strapped for cash and also often do not find it easy to recruit teachers. Thus the information contained in Table 1.4 comes as something of a shock.

Pupil Teacher Ratio within Secondary Schools

2012/13                15.5

2013/14                15.7

2014/15                15.8

2015/16                16.1

2016/17                15.6

After four years of steadily worsening ratios there appears to have been a sudden turnaround in 2016/17 and the overall position is back to almost where it was in 2012/13. Curious, to say the least. Footnote 1 explains that Pupil Teacher ratios are calculated by dividing the total full-time equivalent number of pupils on rolls in schools by the total FTE number of qualified teachers. It excludes centrally employed teachers regularly employed in schools. However, another footnote (footnote 13) adds that in England unqualified teachers are included in the figures. The figures for England include free schools and all types of academies.

Had the 2016/17 figure been 16.6, I might have thought it a significant deterioration, but in line with the mood music. An improvement of this magnitude needs some form of explanation. However, the Release confines its text just to changes in the data and offers no analysis as to why any changes might have occurred.

Could the inclusion of unqualified teachers be the answer? It might be if they hadn’t been included in previous releases on this topic. Certainly, there is no mention in the footnotes of the 2015/16 Release of unqualified teachers; indeed, the key footnote refers to ‘qualified’ teachers. So, is this the answer? If so, then the 2016/17 Release ought to make clear the change in methodology especially as the footnote on page 5 of the main release specifically mentions ‘qualified’ teachers and thus might be read as inferring that the improvement in the PTR is due to more qualified teachers being employed in England.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I don’t like the term ‘unqualified’ teacher, as it can cover both trainee teachers and those that used, in former days, to be called Instructors. I think some degree of distinction between those being prepared for QTS by schools and on their staffing list at the time of the census and those filling gaps, either because no teacher with QTS was available or because the school had decided to employ someone without QTS because of their other skills, ought to be made.

If the answer isn’t the inclusion this year of unqualified teachers – a factor that makes comparison with the other home nations impossible on this indicator – then I am at something of a loss to identify why such a large change in the direction of better PTRs has taken place over the past year. Could it be to do with the different financial years of maintained schools and academies and hence the budgetary cycles? I doubt it, but would be interested to hear from readers?

 

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‘Freedom is more than a word’

Congratulations to Leora Cruddas on her appointment as the new Chief Executive of FASNA, Freedom and Autonomy for Schools – National Association. Leora has joined FASNA from ASCL, another of the alphabet soup of initials that is the fate of any policy area in the modern age. Leora was very supportive of TeachVac this time last year and I was grateful for her kind words. I wish her well in her new appointment.

I will watch the development of FASNA with interest. Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a view about local accountability of schools, especially primary schools and the feedback that active local politicians can bring to the education scene. This can be lost with remote Regional Commissioners and Chief Executives of MATs that don’t understand the importance of customer care and working for the better education of the local community

However, I am encouraged that Freedom is linked to Autonomy in the title of the organisation. Freedom to innovate can be a good think; freedom to ignore the place of local schools in society isn’t, as my campaign for places for looked after children demonstrates. Freedom over admissions must not be used to discriminate against certain groups in society: especially the most vulnerable. Public money is to be used for public benefit, not for some, but for all, however uncomfortable a challenge that may sometimes be.

The issue is raised today in terms of whether a school can refuse to accept a pupil on roll into the next year group because of inadequate performance or likely poor performance in the future. In the old days, it was clear that a pupil could only be taken off roll in certain limited circumstances. I think this was regardless of whether or not they were over the school leaving age. The issue was the roll not the leaving age. I am sure that there is case law on this point. I assume that a school could refuse to enter a pupil in a public examination if it felt that they wouldn’t achieve the grade a school wants, but again, the issue is who is the school working for? Does it have a duty to pupils on roll to educate them to the best of its ability unless it formally excludes them and can it exclude for academic reasons associated with a minimum standard of performance?

With its connections to the Church of England, the relevant diocese ought to take an interest in this school’s approach to selection. How free should a state funded school be to decide this sort of policy? No doubt these are able pupils, they passed the entry exam to the school, so the standard is relative and they would be welcome elsewhere, but why should their education be interrupted in this way?

Where are the boundaries of freedom. I don’t agree with C S Lewis, the Christian apologist who wrote in 1944 the following that seems very close to the position being taken by the school trying to exclude its own pupils.

A truly democratic education—one which will preserve democracy—must be, in its own field, ruthlessly aristocratic, shamelessly “high-brow.” In drawing up its curriculum it should always have chiefly in view the interests of the boy who wants to know and who can know … It must, in a certain sense subordinate the interests of the many to those of the few, and it must subordinate the school to the university. Only thus can it be a nursery of those first-class intellects without which neither a democracy nor any other State can thrive.  C. S. Lewis, “Notes on the Way,” Time and Tide 25 (29 April 1944), 369–70. Lewis’ own title for this essay was “Democratic Education.” From https://tifwe.org/resource/c-s-lewis-and-the-meaning-of-freedom/ by Steven Gillen

 

 

New data on schools and their pupils

Unless there is a dramatic change in the birth rate over the next few years, the peak in the primary school population is probably very close to being reached. Data on schools and pupil numbers published by the DfE today https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/schools-pupils-and-their-characteristics-january-2017 reveal a slight decline in the number of Key State 1 infant classes above the nationally agreed limit of 30 pupils per class. The decline is only 0.1% from 11.9 to 11.8% of these classes and is still way above the 10.4% achieved in 2011 and 2012. Still, it remains below the 13.8% of 2006, and should fall further over the next few years.

There is still pressure at Key Stage 2, with average class sizes increasing from 20.4 to 20.8 across England. It seems likely that this average will continue to increase for the next couple of years that is unless Brexit results in a mass emigration of young families to other European countries. This seems less likely, although still possible, after the discussions last week on allowing existing migrants from the EU to remain in England.

There was a big jump in the average size of secondary classes, from 20.4 to 20.8, their highest level since 2008. With the increase in pupil numbers over the next few years, this average seems set to increase still further, perhaps towards the 21.5 reached in 2006.

The implications of the National Funding formula will probably be most keenly felt in the 5,400 primary schools and nearly 130 secondary schools with fewer than 200 pupils. Some of the latter may be UTCs and Studio schools with the chance to grow, but many of the primary schools could face an uncertain future with the costs of closure affecting local authority transport bills in rural areas.

On average, 12% of primary schools have less than 100 pupils. However, the average hides a wide range, from just 2% of schools in London to 19% in the East Midlands and 22% of primary sector schools in the South West. I am sure the travel implications have been taken into account by those reviewing the effects of school funding and the new formula.

The Church of England will certainly be interested in what happens to small schools under the new funding formula since more than a quarter of their primary schools have fewer than 100 pupils. In five regions the percentage of their schools with less than 100 pupils is more than 30% with the East Midlands having more than a third of Church of England primary schools being of this size. However, the Church of England has only 2% of its schools in London with less than 100 pupils, the same as the average for all schools. By contrast, London has the largest Church of England primary schools with one having more than 800 pupils. Still, by that is small compared with the largest primary school in London that has more than 1,500 pupils.

 

 

 

Transfer at 14; good idea, badly executed?

Schools Week has been running a story about the failure of many UTCs and Studio Schools to attract pupils for September. Their latest news is that Plymouth UTC will now not take any pupils at 14 this coming September http://schoolsweek.co.uk/troubled-utc-plymouth-pauses-recruitment-at-14/ Here in Oxfordshire the news on that front is better, with two of the three UTC/Studio schools fully subscribed. Indeed, the Didcot UTC has made 120 offer for 120 places equal to its Planned Admission Number and the Studio School in Bicester exceeded its PAN of 50 with 53 offers to the 60 applicants. Now, whether or not they all turn up is another matter, and we won’t know until parents have considered issues such as how much it will cost to transport their child to the school.

The Space Studio School in Banbury follows the trend identified by Schools Week, with 16 offer for the 75 places available. But, located as it is in the grounds of the town’s largest academy it has always seemed to me to be a bit of an oddity.

Despite these good recruitment numbers, there remain for the schools in Oxfordshire the same issues rehearsed before in this column. Existing Oxfordshire secondary schools will lose the funding of 173 pupils if all those offered places move to the Didcot and Bicester schools. That’s the best part of £700,000 in one year. Over four years it would amount to not far short of £3 million pounds after allowing for inflation. Put this drain on income on top of the 8% the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggested might be the cuts to school budgets over the rest of this decade and you have the potential for financial problems at other schools.

To make the most of a system, you need a degree of planning or unlimited funds. We don’t have either at present and we don’t seem to have a government that understands that in times of austerity you need to make the most of the resources that you do have available.

The issue in Oxfordshire is, what will be the consequences for schools losing pupils at 14 and 16, whereas elsewhere the consequence is the opposite. What happens to the schools that don’t attract enough pupils to pay their bills? The silence from the Regional Schools Commissioners and the National Commissioner on the need for a rational approach is of concern. These civil servants must not be high priced rubber stamps approving new academies without understanding the consequences.

In the end, it will be the much maligned local authorities that will have to sort out ant mess. It may be no surprise that the Plymouth UTC operates in a selective school system. In such a system, few pupils will leave a selective school at 14 making it even harder to recruit from the remaining schools with the pupils that didn’t take or pass the selection process.

It is probably time to look at how the transfer of pupils at 14 is going to work in the longer-term: leaving it to the market isn’t really an option.

Children on Free School Meals don’t go to selective schools

The following piece appeared in today’s Oxford Mail comment column.

What is the nature of the contract between the State and those parents who entrust their children’s education to the government? As we approach the 150th anniversary of the State’s offer of free education, a right that was originally introduced by the Liberal government after 1870, this question is as real today as it was then.

Indeed, with the local Tory enthusiasm for the re-introduction of grammar schools, as outlined by Oxfordshire’s Cabinet member with responsibility for education in this paper last week, the issue is of real concern to many parents locally. I did wonder whether the enthusiasm with which the local Tories have embraced grammar schools is just a diversionary tactic to draw attention away from other cuts in the education funding and early years’ budgets, including the removal of much of the Children’s Centre work from rural areas and my own division in north Oxford rather than a genuine desire to turn back the clock.

Grammar schools became a core part of Tory Party policy after the passing of the 1944 Education Act, although it was the Labour government of the late 1940s that laid down the basis for the transformation into the system of grammar and secondary modern schools. With many school leavers at that time still destined for field, factory or, for many girls, family life, grammar schools satisfied the needs of a largely muscle-powered economy for a small number of more educated individuals.

Now, fast forward seventy years and we have an entirely different economy; young people are staying in education longer and our economy requires a much better educated workforce. The market porter of yesterday, pushing a barrow, has been replaced by the fork-lift truck driver and even they are increasingly being replaced by computer operatives running automated warehouses staffed by robots such as those seen in the recent BBC TV series on how modern factories operate. Less muscle, more brain power is the key to the modern economy.

In Oxfordshire, the demand for educated individuals to staff the wealth-creating and knowledge generating industries cannot be satisfied by selecting a fraction of the school population at age eleven. There is a case for recognising that between 14-16 pupils can make judgements about their future intentions, but even then closing doors too firmly, as grammar schools so often do, isn’t a good idea.

There are far more important ways to spend limited funds on education than introducing grammar schools: better careers advice, ensuring enough teachers for all children to be taught by a properly qualified teacher and creating a curriculum designed for the twenty-first century are just three of the more important uses for education funding.

However, the most important reason many supporters of grammar schools put forward for their re-introduction is the desire to improve social mobility. Too often there is no evidence to support their argument other than anecdotal recollections of individuals who prospered in the so-called golden age of grammar schools. To test the current picture I looked at the percentage of pupils with free school meals in the 163 grammar schools across England in January as a possible proxy measure for social mobility.

Nationally, 14.1% of secondary pupils were eligible for free school meals. No grammar school reached that figure; indeed only six grammar schools had more than 6% of their pupils eligible for free school meals; 66 grammar schools had less than 2% of pupils on Free School Meals.

It is time for us to work together to create an education system that works for the benefit of all, not the advantage of the few: that means a fully comprehensive system with opportunities for all from primary school to post-16 provision.

 

Robert the Bruce Day

I call today Robert the Bruce Day after the Scottish King who endured a number of failures and, so the tale goes, was inspired to carry on campaigning when all seemed lost by watching a spider fail to complete is web. Despite several failures, the story goes, the spider didn’t give up and continued trying until it eventually succeeded.

There will be some pupils that receive their GCSE results today that won’t have made the required grades in either or both of English and mathematics. Now we can argue long and hard about the suitability of the curriculum for all sixteen year olds studying these subjects, but we are where we are. The government has decreed that every person in learning or education should continue to study these subjects until they are at the required standard.

I can sympathise. Back in the golden age of grammar schools I failed what was then ‘O’ level English at age 16. Indeed, I failed it at age 17 and age 18 as well. In total, I failed the subject some five times before finally achieving a pass in not one but two different Examination Boards at the same time; the January of my third year in the Sixth Form.

Fortunately, I was inspired by the Robert the Bruce story when in primary school. It may have had something to do with Bruce Castle Park in Tottenham, just down the road from where I went to primary school. Just as likely, was the way, W W Ashton, the head teacher, told the story. Any way the notion of not giving up stuck. This helped me through the slog of repeating the same examination following yet more tuition throughout the first two years of the Sixth Form. Curiously, in the term before the final examinations I passed, I didn’t have any more tuition, but time to think and assimilate what was needed.

I guess my basic failings in spelling and grammar that regular readers of this blog may have noticed from time to time may not have helped my cause. They certainly meant I never expected either to have written a column in a national education publication for over a decade or to have been a regular writer of a blog. In that respect, technology has been a great help: this would not have been possible with the development of the microchip.

So, my message is one of hope. Don’t give up. If at first you fail, try, try again. Who knows what you might achieve in the end.

 

Schools and their pupils in 2016

Now that purdah is over the DfE can once again start its full range of duties. Earlier today the DfE published the results of the latest school and pupil numbers based upon the January 2016 census. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/532121/SFR20_2016_Main_Text.pdf

Overall, there were 121,000 more pupils in the system than in January 2015; no surprise to anyone there. However, even in the secondary sector there were 8,700 more pupils, reversing the long decline and marking the start of an increase likely to stretch well into the next decade.

There are some interesting statistics buried in the Statistical Bulletin, some of which may point to why the nation voted as it did last Thursday. The proportion of pupils with minority ethnic origins increased in the primary sector from little over 20% in 2006 to more than 31% in 2016; an increase of around a half in just a decade. For the third year in a row, the largest ethnic minority group were White Non-British at 7.1% of primary and 5.4% of the secondary school population and 6.3% of the total school population.

There are a lot more interesting nuggets buried in the tables. For instance, four shire counties each had more independent schools in them than in the whole of the North East region. The four: Surrey, Kent, Hampshire and Oxfordshire together accounted for 309 independent schools. Taken together two regions, London with 551 and the South East with 529, accounted for almost half of the independent schools in England.

Similarly, the three regions of London, The South East and East of England together account for 98 out of the 211 free schools, UTCs and Studio Schools in existence this January. Despite their potential for vocational education there were only six schools classified as free schools, UTCs or studio schools in the whole of the North East region: a truly divided country on these measures.

There is also a sharp divide in terms of free school meals, with regions in the north of England having above average percentages of pupils eligible and claiming and most of London, the Home Counties, East Midlands and South West having below average percentages. Inner London boroughs don’t share in this pattern, with some having amongst the highest levels of free school meals claimed in the country as a percentage of the school population. Tower Hamlets even exceeds the level seen in North East authorities such as Middlesbrough on one of the measures.

There was a slight fall in the number of infant classes with more than 30 pupils in January 2016 compared with last year, but the DfE admit the percentage of such classes still remains above the 2013 level, no doubt reflecting the pressure on school budgets.

Redbridge and Harrow had the largest average key Stage 1 class sizes at 29.5 each, closely followed by Slough, Richmond upon Thames, Birmingham and Sandwell. Rural areas in the north of England had some of the smallest average class sizes at Key Stage 1. As many of these have some of the smallest average class sizes at key Stage 2 as well it may pose interesting questions for the National Funding Formula, should the consultation still go ahead.